That Little Room Which They Have Taken For Her
Early last summer, I had occasion to consult the episode in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past in which the narrator revisits Balbec after the death of his grandmother. This well-known passage describes a rush of tears to the narrator's eyes—tears whose source he has to search his memory to find. What he realizes is that he has just been belatedly mourning the grandmother whose death hadn't really hit him until now.
Even after I'd found the specific passage I'd been looking for, it wasn't easy to close the book and (as a phrase nearly as annoying as the word “closure” would have it) move on. Soon, in the vicinity of the account of these tears, I came upon a longer passage I hadn't remembered as well. In a haunting sequence, the narrator, still reeling from the shock of his belated grasp of the fact that his grandmother has died, dreams about her. In his dream she is both dead and not dead.
This unsettlingly apt description (I'll quote it soon) of the way a dream presents an indigestible reality was still much in my mind a few weeks later, when I found myself in my country house rummaging through papers. I was sifting through some folders of work I'd discarded or left unfinished—poems twenty years old, from the late 1980s and early 1990s. One short poem stopped me. It had neither title nor date, but I could easily tell more or less when I had written it, for the poem recorded a dream that had clearly presaged my mother's death. Her cancer had been diagnosed in November 1990, and my dream preceded the diagnosis by only a few days or weeks. Indeed, the dream's timing may well have been occasioned by some tests my mother was undergoing. I remember that when, after the last of these tests, the doctor informed me that my mother had a tumor, I told him I'd dreamed she was dying of cancer. As I recall, he seemed more interested than surprised or skeptical. Perhaps such prescient dreams are not so uncommon.
Somehow, brought to light about twenty years after I had first written it, my little poem seemed more worth preserving than some of the others I'd turned up in the same folder. I gave it a title and tightened its original eleven lines to nine.
Subterranean A gate that had been open closed behind me. Light was streaming into a low-ceilinged bedroom bare but for the bed and a sort of throne
on which I sat to hear the news from the recumbent figure calm in the face of oblivion, hands folded. She told the end herself. The gate, the tunnel, the dark dais, all had been leading toward the one conclusion.
All her life, my mother was a composed, reticent, and dignified person. The dream, as preserved in the amber of the poem, has a static, formal, almost hieratic quality; emblematic or heraldic are other adjectives that come to mind. The recumbent figure recalls funerary sculpture—knights and their ladies lying in effigy, or Greek grave steles, or Egyptian statues. In keeping with the paradoxical pairing of feelings that such representations of the dead all seem to evoke— feelings about death that all people probably share—my mother, in the poem as in the dream, is somehow both alive and not alive. In order to reach her, I have to go underground, passing through a tunnel (not mentioned in the poem) and then a gate to reach the dim, low-ceilinged chamber where she is lying. Yet lying as if entombed, she is also able to receive me as a visitor and talk to me calmly and cogently—which was precisely how my mother nearly always talked. Her hands are folded heraldically across her chest; she seems almost like a statue of herself—and yet she is still my (barely) living mother.
Here now is the Proust passage:
But as soon as I had succeeded in falling asleep, at that more truthful hour when my eyes closed to the things of the outer world, the world of sleep (on whose frontier my intelligence and my will, momentarily paralysed, could no longer strive to rescue me from the cruelty of my real impressions) reflected, refracted the agonising synthesis of survival and annihilation, once more reformed, in the organic and translucent depths of the mysteriously lighted viscera. The world of sleep in which our inner consciousness, subordinated to the disturbances of our organs, accelerates the rhythm of the heart or the respiration, because the same dose of terror, sorrow or remorse acts with a strength magnified a hundred fold if it is thus injected into our veins: as soon as, to traverse the arteries of the subterranean city, we have embarked upon the dark current of our own blood as upon an inward Lethe meandering sixfold, tall solemn forms appear to us, approach and glide away, leaving us in tears. I sought in vain for my grandmother's form when I had entered beneath the sombre portals; yet I knew that she did exist still, if with a diminished vitality, as pale as that of memory; the darkness was increasing, and the wind; my father, who was to take me to her, had not yet arrived. Suddenly my breath failed me, I felt my heart turn to stone; I had just remembered that for weeks on end I had forgotten to write to my grandmother. What must she be thinking of me? “Oh God,” I said to myself, “how wretched she must be in that little room which they have taken for her, no bigger than what one would give to an old servant, where she's all alone with the nurse they have put there to look after her, from which she cannot stir, for she's still slightly paralysed and has always refused to get up! She must think that I've forgotten her now that she's dead; how lonely she must be feeling, how deserted! Oh, I must hurry to see her, I mustn't lose a minute, I can't wait for my father to come—but where is it? How can I have forgotten the address? Will she know me again, I wonder? How can I have forgotten her all
these months? It's so dark, I shan't be able to find her; the wind is holding me back; but look! there's my father walking ahead of me . . . .” I call out to him: “Where is grandmother? Tell me her address. Is she all right? Are you quite sure she has everything she needs?” “Yes, yes,” says my father, “you needn't worry. Her nurse is well trained. We send her a little money from time to time, so that she can get your grandmother anything she may need. She sometimes asks what's become of you. She was told you were going to write a book. She seemed pleased. She wiped away a tear.” And then I seemed to remember that shortly after her death, my grandmother had said to me, sobbing, with a humble look, like an old servant who has been given notice, like a stranger: “You will let me see something of you occasionally, won't you; don't let too many years go by without visiting me. Remember that you were my grandson, once, and that grandmothers never forget.” And seeing again that face of hers, so submissive, so sad, so tender, I wanted to run to her at once and say to her, as I ought to have said to her then: “Why, grandmother, you can see me as often as you like, I have only you in the world, I shall never leave you any more.” What tears my silence must have made her shed through all those months in which I have never been to the place where she is lying! What can she have been saying to herself? And it is in a voice choked with tears that I too shout to my father: “Quick, quick, her address, take me to her.” But he says: “Well . . . I don't know whether you will be able to see her. Besides, you know, she's very frail now, very frail, she's not at all herself, I'm afraid you would find it rather painful. And I can't remember the exact number of the avenue.” “But tell me, you who know, it's not true that the dead have ceased to exist. It can't possibly be true, in spite of what they say, because grandmother still exists.” My father smiles a mournful smile: “Oh, hardly at all, you know, hardly at all. I think it would be better if you didn't go. She has everything that she wants. They come and keep the place tidy for her.” “But is she often alone?” “Yes, but that's better for her. It's better for her not to think, it could only make her unhappy. Thinking often makes people unhappy. Besides, you know, she is quite lifeless now. I shall leave a note of the exact address, so that you can go there; but I don't see what good you can do, and I don't suppose the nurse will allow you to see her.”
In 1977 and 1978 my husband George and I were rereading Proust more or less in tandem, comparing notes, diving into the text and emerging with treasures. At the time, we recognized his miraculous penetration of the endless layers of human nature—or we thought we did. But what did we know? We were concentrating on Proust's insights about art or love rather than mortality or grief, not that any terribly firm boundaries distinguish these themes. George's mother's stroke and prolonged disability, my mother's short illness and death, and George's gradual decline, insidious and (as one neurologist called it) indolently paced, all lay in the future. Yet here they all are, these losses somehow prefigured in the narrator's dream.
My poem “Subterranean” bears the same relation to the Proust passage as a single shard does to a great mosaic. Still, the resemblances are striking. One crucial parallel is that in both poems, the central figure, whether doomed to die or recently dead, is in an underground chamber; ambivalent figures make their way down there to visit. The grandmother in the dream both is and is not dead. She both can and cannot speak to her grandson, who both does and does not want to visit her. Of course my tiny poem accommodates much less
anguish, guilt, and ambivalence than does Proust's sequence. In “Subterranean,” the emotion is chilled, muted, as if the poem's speaker is determined to be as dignified as the recumbent figure she is visiting. Perhaps the lack of overt conflict or guilt in my poem has to do with the fact that it looks forward toward a death rather than back at a death. Retrospection is the real hothouse for guilt.
But there was something else too. Rereading both the Proust passage and my poem, I couldn't help being struck by another dimension in the narrator's dream—a dimension my poem recapitulated in miniature. The entire sequence also resonated, as I was now able to see, with an experience that in 1990 through 1992, the years of my mother's illness and death, still lay years in the future. This was the tangle of emotional conflicts surrounding the process of institutionalizing a loved one—conflicts that were to batter me throughout 2007 and to culminate in my moving George to a dementia facility early in 2008.
So here was another dilemma Proust turned out to understand with preternatural clarity. For the narrator's dream mercilessly lays bare what it is no exaggeration to call the nightmare logic of the situation. How do we feel once our relative—grandmother, husband, the person now routinely dubbed “loved one”—is installed in “that little room which they have taken for her”? We feel confused and guilty. We want to visit, or feel that we ought to want to visit. We send money, not to the person herself but to her attendant, so that we can reassure ourselves that our relative isn't lacking for small comforts. Yet we also profoundly do NOT want to visit. Indeed, we do not want to think about the whole endlessly distressing situation. Conveniently, we cannot quite remember the address of the facility, and the person who has that address somehow “can't remember the exact number of the avenue.” Furthermore, we tell ourselves, or someone in authority tells us, it would really be better for us not to visit, from the point of view of the sick person; thinking about us would only distress them.
The illogicality of these entangled contradictions perfectly captures the feelings that often cluster around the prospect of visiting a family member who is in an institution. And Proust's insight also illuminates even more fundamental questions. Anyone who has a family member suffering from dementia will understand what I mean when I say that apparently simple queries turn out to have no answers. How is she? Does he recognize you? These ought to be questions to which the answer is a crisp Well or Not Well, or Yes or No, but they're not. The spectral subterranean murk through which the narrator's dream unfolds doesn't permit the clarity of an unequivocal reply. Neither does the murk of advancing dementia.
Seeking an answer to the unanswerable question, the narrator turns to his father in the dream. The father is in a position of authority; surely he must know.
“But tell me, you who know, it's not true that the dead have ceased to exist. It can't possibly be true, in spite of what they say, because grandmother still exists.” My father smiles a mournful smile: “Oh, hardly at all, you know, hardly at all.”
Almost any answer would be better than this qualified, hedging evasiveness.
But however desperately we long for one, there is no answer. It is significant that even the father, supposedly the person “who know[s],” refers to another figure perhaps better placed to know: “Her nurse is well trained. We send her a little money from time to time, so that she can get your grandmother anything she may need.” This sounds practical and reassuring, but only a little earlier in the dream the narrator has thought of his grandmother and her attendant with a pang: “Oh God,” I said to myself, “how wretched she must be in that little room which they have taken for her, no bigger than what one would give to an old servant, where she's all alone with the nurse they have put there to look after her, from which she cannot stir, for she's still slightly paralysed and has always refused to get up! She must think that I've forgotten her now that she's dead; how lonely she must be feeling, how deserted! Oh, I must hurry to see her, I mustn't lose a minute, I can't wait for my father to come—but where is it? How can I have forgotten the address? Will she know me again, I wonder?”
I and the other people whose husbands or wives live at the 80th Street Residence know that such “old servants”—the aides who care for our spouses day in and day out—know more than we do. But even they may be unable or unwilling to answer questions like “Does he recognize you?” For well over a year now, I have not been sure whether my husband recognizes me. But when I commented to Mildred, the sensible, experienced woman who sees a lot more of George than I do, that when I kneel to tie my husband's shoelaces he never strikes at me, as he apparently does at some of the aides, she answered with no apparent irony, “That's because he loves you.” So is love identical with recognition? This is another question that apparently has no answer.
In his luminous book Bring Me the Rhinoceros, John Tarrant recounts and comments upon the zen koan whose punch line, as it were, is the refusal of a sage to answer his disciple's question, a question that one would expect to have a yes or no answer. Master and pupil are at a funeral, and the question as to whether the body in the coffin is alive or dead ought to be an easy one. In fact it's hard to see why the student feels the need to ask it at all. But he does ask, and he doesn't get an answer.
He raised his hand and smashed it down on the coffin, Bang! He turned to Daowu and, though he had not planned what he would say, a question burst out. “Alive or dead?” In the small room his voice was loud, but Daowu didn't show the least surprise and answered without hesitation. “I'm not saying alive, I'm not saying dead.” Taking their cue from Daowu, the shocked mourners breathed out and returned to normalcy—tea and conversation. The young daughters were a little bit thrilled. They had heard of the strange behavior of people who were seeking enlightenment and now they saw it. But Jianyuan couldn't compose himself; his sense of the normal had shifted. He no longer knew whether his question applied to the corpse, or himself, or both, but it was the main thing in his mind, the most important thing of all, and he demanded to know why Daowu wouldn't help him.
“Why not?” “I'm not saying! I'm not saying!”
When I first read this koan, in Tarrant's expanded version, I found it mystifying, mesmerizing, and funny all at once. The very refusal to answer an apparently matter-of-fact question seemed to provide an answer of sorts, part of which might be that the question wasn't really so simple. This, as I understand it, is how koans are supposed to work. Here is what Tarrant has to say about readers like me:
If this koan has chosen you, or called to you, it naturally belongs with certain other questions, deep questions, which then become yours. What happens to me when I die? What happens to me when those I love die? When someone has died are they alive in my mind or dead? In what way are they still alive and in what way not? . . . Then there is a family of questions about not saying: Why is it sometimes better not to say?
I could add some more questions to this useful list. When someone has dementia and total aphasia, are they alive in my mind or dead? What is the best way to think about them? Is there a best way, or single way?
Nor is it only a matter of what happens inside one's own mind. What is the best way to talk about people who are neither evidently alive nor evidently dead? Tarrant's unpacking of the koan made me realize why I get angry at people who ask about George, and even angrier at people who don't. The first group seems clueless or insincere—they somehow never phrase the questions right. The second group seems heartless.
It's true that in the impartiality of my anger, I diverge from the bifurcated reaction of the narrator's mother, a reaction of which we are told a little later in Proust's account. The mother is exaggeratedly grateful to the friends who recall her deceased mother and exaggeratedly wounded by those who fail to mention the dead woman. Still, fundamentally the mother and I are on the same page—a page inscribed with what Proust describes with simple eloquence as “that indifference which we feel towards the dead.”
And everything that was in any way connected with my grandmother was so precious to her that she was deeply touched, and remembered ever afterwards with gratitude what the judge said to her, just as she was hurt and indignant that on the contrary, the barrister's wife had not a word to say in memory of the dead woman. In reality, the judge cared no more about my grandmother than the barrister's wife. The affecting words of the one and the other's silence, for all that my mother put so vast a distance between then, were but alternative ways of expressing that indifference which we feel towards the dead.
And if those dead are alive but demented, responses are likely to include just as much indifference but a good deal more confusion. Perhaps my reply to those who ask me about George's condition could be “I'm not saying! I'm not saying!” The only reliable truth here is that there is no right question and no right answer. The darkness is increasing, and the wind.